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"This whole thing of this 'war on drugs' and the mass incarcerations that have happened pretty much for the last 40 years has just decimated the black male population," the filmmaker said on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight. "It’s slavery, it is just, it’s just slavery through and through, and it’s just the same fear of the black male that existed back in the 1800s."

In addition, he says that the flesh-for-cash business of slavery mirrors that of the prison industrial complex.

"Especially having even directed a movie about slavery," he said, "and you know the scenes that we have in the slave town, the slave auction town, where they’re moving back and forth -- well, that looks like standing in the top tier of a prison system and watching the things go down. And between the private prisons and the public prisons, the way prisoners are traded back and forth."

Quentin Tarantino is an amazing filmmaker. He is one of the great talents of his generation. I will be watching his new slavery revenge flick on Christmas Eve. However, Quentin Tarantino, an autodidact film genius, is not John Hope Franklin. He is also not Michelle Alexander. Nor is Quentin Tarantino an authority on the "black experience" in America.

One of my primary concerns about Django is that a revenge flick about slavery, drawing on a history that few Americans really understand, and presented in the genre of historical fantasy, will simply confuse the public about the horrors of the Middle Passage and the United States' centuries long status as a country ruled by formal white supremacy.

My expectations and claims are precise: I do not expect popular culture to either responsibly teach or to be historically accurate.

The first obligation of popular culture is to pleasure and entertainment. However, the realm of the popular is invested with symbolic power. And in dealing with a topic, where the mass scale barbarisms and horrors have been quite literally white washed away, there is an almost unavoidable risk that Django will flatten history in the service of narrative convention, Tarantino's own predilections, and filmic vision.

In all, Django, despite the complaints and tender sensitivities of white conservatives and others, is a relatively benign depiction of white evil towards black personhood under the system of racial terrorism that was chattel slavery.

[If Tarantino dared to make an "accurate" movie about the Maafa it would be rated XXX or NC-17; Django most certainly would not be nominated for an Academy Award next year.]

Django is not "history written with lightning." One would be surprised by how audiences confuse history as presented by Hollywood with the actual facts of a given event. For many, across the colorline, Django, will not simply be an exercise in a mating of the exploitation and Spaghetti Western film genres. Rather, it will be a convenient and accessible "history" that will upset, anger, and titillate the audience while it makes millions of dollars.

In his effort to speak truth to power, Tarantino makes the error of conflating the injustices and racism of the prison industrial complex and the "War on Drugs" with chattel slavery. His heart was in the right place.

Nevertheless, sentimentality and emotion are not substitutes for empirical rigor or solid historiography.

Moreover, Tarantino's passionate concerns about "black oppression" are more suitable for some type of corner standing on a plastic milk crate posturing agitprop foolishness, or silly black radical prison house polemic, than as an accurate description of African American enslavement or the War on Drugs.

I always acknowledge the role of structures, and their impact on life chances. The poor, people of color, and those who do not have access to inter-generational wealth, have a very different set of life chances than those born to systems of privilege. In some neighborhoods, the "rational" choice is to join a gang and get involved in the drug game. Many of these young men and women will end up in prison and be forever marked as felons, limited in terms of citizenship and employment options.

Unlike human chattel in the Americas, those people had a choice. However constrained their agency, they chose to be corner boys, to hustle, or to "hold it down for their man" by keeping drugs on their person or in the home. There was no one-drop rule that deemed those who chose to participate in the drug economy human property, their children, and their children's children children chattel to be sold away in chains. There is no rule in the War on Drugs which is either constitutionally sanctioned or remotely equivalent to Dred Scott and its "popular" notion that the lowest white man is above the most accomplished black man, or that black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect.

The Black Freedom Struggle involved the marshaling of black dignity and self-respect, as well as a recurring struggle against unimaginable odds to maintain (and reconstruct) our families and communities. The politics of black respectability (a tradition that I was raised in) demanded that black people hold themselves to the highest standards, and to be the best that the race was capable of producing.

Historically, black Americans had to both take care of ourselves, while also demanding full inclusion as American citizens with all of the rights and liberties we have earned through blood sacrifice. The triumph of black people in America over formal white supremacy was based on systems of mutual aid, support, respect, resistance, and linked fate. At present, the War on Drugs is a "war" that is in many ways internecine and intraracial. There, black folks are destroying other black people in ways that are wholly distinct and separate from what occurred in the United States during chattel slavery.

Do not misunderstand my claim: the War on Drugs is racist. It disproportionately impacts people of color. Whites are more likely to use and have drugs in their possession and significantly less likely to be imprisoned. There are documented biases in sentencing and incarceration rates along the colorline. Blacks do not control the international flow of narcotics into America. Black and brown people do not profit from the school to prison pipeline and the prison industrial complex.

However, the War on Drugs is not the equivalent of chattel slavery because at some point an individual exercised the choice to place themselves at risk by participating in the drug economy. Black Americans did not choose to sell themselves into inter-generational chattel slavery, to have families destroyed, to be raped, tortured, dismembered, and murdered.

[Tarantino's false equivalency can also lead to some unexpected and problematic destinations. For example, were the black community leaders who lobbied for severe penalties for crack in the 1980s, because it unleashed an epidemic of destructive violence on inner city communities, "sell-outs" or "Uncle Toms?"]

The closest analogy--and even here I would suggest that it is a weak one--to the War on Drugs would be debt peonage and the racial class exploitation (and barbarism) of the work camps in the postbellum South as discussed in the essential documentary Slavery by Another Name.

Historians, social scientists, and others who study these matters would know that fact. Tarantino is playing with nitroglycerin inside of a hot oven on a summer's day with Django. He does not have to exaggerate, become an expert of race in America, or play an armchair historian in order to get folks to see his newest movie. He is a master filmmaker who should craft provocative art that entertains.

I hope that he is aware of that limitation. I also hope that he had some respected historians of the American South and slavery as consultants for Django...I really do, fingers crossed twice.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Well, yes, to a degree (7+ / 0-)

    Nothing's like slavery except for slavery -- I'm more open to Michelle Alexander formulation 'The New Jim Crow' -- but I think you downplay the racism and horror of the drug war.

    Do not misunderstand my claim: the War on Drugs is racist. It disproportionately impacts people of color. Whites are more likely to use and have drugs in their possession and significantly less likely to be imprisoned. There are documented biases in sentencing and incarceration rates along the colorline. Blacks do not control the international flow of narcotics into America. Black and brown people do not profit from the school to prison pipeline and the prison industrial complex.

    However, the War on Drugs is not the equivalent of chattel slavery because at some point an individual exercised the choice to place themselves at risk by participating in the drug economy. Black Americans did not choose to sell themselves into inter-generational chattel slavery, to have families destroyed, to be raped, tortured, dismembered, and murdered.

    I don't believe the drug war is racist just because it disproportionately hurts black people (and other minorities.) The War on Drug and its various ancestors are racist by design, a mechanism of racial control. Through history in the US. authorities prosecuted drug crimes as a means of persecuting racial groups. As for the "choice" to enter the drug economy, I guess it's a choice but it's often an easy and rational one given other choices available.

    So, no, slavery by no means, but a descendant of it, I think so.

  •  Let's compromise... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Avila, Larsstephens

    The war on drugs is a racist policy, just like slavery is racist. Yes, Tarantino is making revenge porn, probably to cover up his guilt with the revenge porn on nazis in his last film. I never thought a movie like this would ever get financed in hollywood. I will see this movie.

  •  OK, but you lost me at (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Quentin Tarantino is an amazing filmmaker.
    give me "My Cousin Vinny" or just let it go . . ..
  •  Other than buying all the books you linked to (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Avila, Larsstephens

    (thanks for that) and reading them, I can't comment, but surely appreciate this diary and essay as a way to learn someting. I am movie shy. So, revenge pornos are usually not on my plate (and US Hollywood produced Hitler / Nazi porn neither). I don't like German produced Hitler/ Nazi porn as well). We will see if I watch Tarantino's film.

    When I would be ready to make a comment, this diary is drowned in "the archives". That's my problem, I know. Sadly so.

    I have my archives in my bones today. Moved and sorted over video 4000 tapes in the last five days (I am an archivist). Threw away worth 4000 tapes of US TV news clips. So, I was wondering what US news clips are worth ...

    Sorry, I am dead tired right now, just saying that I enjoy getting book links about subject issues I like to reade about, through dailykos authors. If can recommend me more I would be happy. Thanks.

  •  I'm Jewish and thought Inglorious Bastards... (3+ / 0-)

    ...was great entertainment.  Nothing else.  Didn't bother me at all - I knew it wasn't historical.  Should I have been bothered by it?

    Preparing for the Mayan doomsday prophecy by hastily trying to get in the good graces of snake-bird god Q’uq’umatz

    by dov12348 on Thu Dec 20, 2012 at 01:01:30 PM PST

  •  Agree that Tarantino is a great filmmaker. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Avila, OnlyWords, Larsstephens

    However I do think it's arrogant, self-serving and ignorant (perhaps willfully so to get asses in the movie theatre seats...) to compare slavery to the War on Drugs in America.

    What's galling is that he's a white guy commenting on a subject even if educated on the subject of slavery in this country by reading volumes full of books, would not even BEGIN TO UNDERSTAND in its essence, because he's white.  I'm not saying that he can't empathize or sympathize but it simply looks bad (and the things I mention above) for a privileged white person, by virtue of being white in this society to give an interview like that.


    "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die." Ted Kennedy 1980 DNC Keynote Speech

    by Dumas EagerSeton on Thu Dec 20, 2012 at 01:19:36 PM PST

  •  Fair Criticism (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Avila, Larsstephens

    But my advice is take what you can get. At the very least, you have a larger stage to start the conversation you want to have.

    I don't usually agree with you, but your writing has really matured over the last year, and you made a quality argument overall for your position here.

    Like you, I'm looking forward to watching Django Unchained, but it's more about being a huge Tarantino fan than anything else. Obviously, this is going to be a more personal experience for you. Thanks for sharing this.


  •  Django Unchained (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    OnlyWords, Larsstephens

    looks like an awesome movie. Its one of the few I am considering seeing in an actual movie theater.

    that being said the analogy is a bad one, as you point out. I understand where he is coming from, the "war on drugs" does indeed have powerful racial undertones, but to compare it to actually owning people is folly. Words are powerful, choose them carefully. QT should heed that.

  •  Well said, Chauncey, as usual. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    OnlyWords, Larsstephens
  •  i agree with tarantino (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Kevskos, Larsstephens

    and I am excited to see more and more people highlighting how bad the war on drugs really is, and pushing to end it.

    It is not upon you to finish the Work, but neither shall you, O child of freedom, refrain from it.

    by DoGooderLawyer on Thu Dec 20, 2012 at 02:05:38 PM PST

    •  by what metric are the two events at all (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      OnlyWords, Larsstephens

      comparable. I am legitimately curious.

      •  Peoples (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        labor is used for others economic gain and not their own.  Drive around America and see how many people are working in orange or other colored jump suits with a corrections vehicle (often private now) parked nearby.  They are really not being paid for their work and other people do not have jobs because prison labor is consuming what few local labor jobs that exist.  Every government in the county I live in is now dependent on prison labor to provide the services the citizens demand.

        I will grant it is not chattel slavery but it is still slavery.

  •  What about describing the War on Drugs (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    as an end run around the Thirteenth Amendment? Being "duly convicted of a crime" can be a very elastic tool. One must acknowlege that there is no formal "color line" in the prohibition laws, but the historical fact is that the drug laws arose first in a context of racial prejudice, and were passed by State legislatures that also implemented segregation and Jim Crow.

  •  No, he's right on this one. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The comparison is that many people are unjustifiably having their freedom taken away, sometimes literally in chains, and that another group of wealthy are profiting enormously from this mass incarceration.

    •  scale, scope, death, time are huge differences (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      and variables. as i said, debt peonage sure. the american slaveocracy? no.

      •  What about prison labor? (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        •  free blacks did not make choices to become (0+ / 0-)

          slaves. whatever you think of constrained life choices the vast majority of poor blacks do not find themselves involved in the underground drug economy. nor, are their children's children children's children judged anti-citizens by the state and their status as human property transferred inter-generationally.

          you choose to be a corner boy, the vast vast majority do not choose to become human chattel property.

          precision is/our/your friend.

          •  Because no one ever got busted because (0+ / 0-)

            a boyfriend hid a bag in their place.

            •  i never sad bad things didn't happen; i (0+ / 0-)

              simply said it is not equivalent to chattel slavery. don't diminish historical tragedy by conflating it with bad lack, misfortune, etc.

              i hope you aren't conflating someone catching a bid on some b.s. to people being sold and owned and killed and raped by the millions as human property.

              bad look on your part if you are.

              •  I haven't said anything about slavery. (0+ / 0-)

                I just don't think it makes much sense to talk about bad luck, misfortune and poor life choices in the context of the drug war when we know the system is rigged.

                •  people make choices to get in the game (0+ / 0-)

                  i grew up with a few of them. that does not mean that we should not talk about racial and class disparities in sentencing etc.

                  people have agency. one of the big lies from the left and elsewhere is that poor people and poor people of color in particular cannot make choices for themselves. in that regard liberal and conservative racism shares a common disregard for the full humanity of black and brown folks.

                  •  Agency is a tricky thing. (0+ / 0-)

                    Individually, we have agency. Collectively, not so much.

                    If you give everyone a gun, you're not forcing any particular person to shot someone, but it's a certainty that someone is going to get shot.

  •  very thoughtful critique Chauncey (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    and most all my subsequent jibber jabber thankfully deleted, whew.

    Except I immediately thought of Cool Hand Luke, and what you thought of it in light of this essay? Could america havestood for a black man acting like the beautiful and clever Paul Newman? Would it even have been funded...and then later there was the Eddie Murphy/Martin Lawrence film from the prison theme.


    This machine kills Fascists.

    by KenBee on Thu Dec 20, 2012 at 04:10:25 PM PST

  •  In a grand generalized and 'cinematic' scope (0+ / 0-)

    QT is almost correct, but about as subtle as his films
    gore and special effects splatter in all random directions.
    One must blink to insure the eyes are still clear.
    It quite sounds like what one of his films characters
    might spout in a tense and melodramatic moment.

    Much like those hyperboleans who equate drone strikes
    with the fire bombings of Dresden or Tokyo or even the
    use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki for
    the sake of garnering attention or motivational change.

    Yes, it is true that there are moral and
    philosophical correlations and similarities,
    but it stains the credibility of the argument
    being made into the realm of counter productivity.

    I prefer your much clearer distinctions.
    Why are the simple nuances of truth so
    easily lost in such well meant discussions?

    Are we presently so distracted that this is the
    only method by which attention may be fully paid?
    This may hearken back to our species common love
    for exaggeration and mythologizing in all our stories.

    A very well known human tendency that doesn't make
    the tasks of anthropologists or historians necessarily
    any simpler or definitive in separating wheat from chaff.
    Possibly a bit more entertaining and endurable, though.

    Very thought provoking.
    Thanks for all of your efforts.

  •  I appear to be the odd man out (0+ / 0-)

    While I enjoyed both Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill I don't consider Tarrantino to be a great film maker. More like a great comic book artist who happens to work in film rather than pen and ink.

    I saw the trailer for Django at the theater and inwardly cringed. I can't get up any enthusiasm for the idea of giving the historical experience of slavery the Inglorious Basterds treatment. I don't think anything of value is created by treating history as malleable raw material for exploitation fantasies.

    Perhaps it's because I've never gotten over such things as Hollywood's rewrite of John Brown in The Santa Fe Trail. White supremacist myth making masquerading as history.

    Nothing human is alien to me.

    by WB Reeves on Fri Dec 21, 2012 at 12:24:57 PM PST

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